“Going to the movies is sort of like going to church for me. When the lights went down I would be as likely to stay for a double feature as I would be to just go home.” – Joe Dante
Much like Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), Joe Dante’s film Matinee (1993) is not only a love letter to cinema, but also a celebration of watching movies – the collective experience of seeing a film in a darkened movie theater with others. However, Dante’s film is more than that. It is also a period piece that recalls the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought Russia and the United States to the brink of nuclear war. He filters this through a coming-of-age story as seen through the eyes of a boy who lives in close proximity to this volatile situation.
Dante is a life-long movie buff with many of his own films paying homage to 1950s science fiction and horror B-movies, but filtered through the prism of 1960s radicalism. In fact, he got his start working with these kinds of movies thanks to mogul Roger Corman and gradually worked his way up through system until he was directing studio fare like Gremlins (1984) and Innerspace (1987). Matinee is arguably Dante’s most personal film to date, a passion project that he cultivated for years until Universal gave him the money to realize it. The film was given a wide release, but much like Ed Wood, it underperformed at the box office, appealing mostly to fellow cineastes.
Set in Key West, Florida, Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton) and his brother Dennis (Jesse Soffer) are the new kids in town, army brats whose father moves from base to base and is stationed nearby because of the Russian missiles amassing near Cuba. Gene is a big horror B-movie fan that eagerly awaits the Saturday matinee preview screening of Lawrence Woolsey’s (John Goodman) latest offering, Mant! (“Half man! Half ant!” proclaims its posters), an affectionate fusion of The Fly (1958) and Them! (1954), which he has filmed in Atom-o-Vision and will be shown in Rumble-rama – homages to William Castle’s shameless showmanship tactics to get people to see his movies.
Gene befriends a local kid named Stan (Omri Katz) who has a crush on Sherry (Kellie Martin), a beautiful girl in their class. Amidst all of the anxiety over Cuba and the excitement for the arrival of Mant!, Gene also becomes interested in girls, finding himself attracted to Sandra (Lisa Jakub), a socially conscious troublemaker whose parents are peace-loving liberals. The child actors, in particular Simon Fenton and Lisa Jakub, are excellent. Gene and Sandra’s growing interest in one another is sweet and believably handled by Dante.
Dante is one of the best directors of kids as evident in films like Explorers (1985) and the television show Eerie, Indiana. Matinee features a predominantly young cast and he really gets wonderful performances out of them. For example, when we are first introduced to Gene and Dennis their rapport comes across as natural and we believe that they are siblings by their familiar short-hand, like how Gene knows just what to say to good-naturedly scare Dennis. That being said, Gene does care about Dennis, like the scene when he reassures his little brother that their father is safe and everything will be okay. It is a nice, nuanced moment between the boys that Dante directs with sensitivity as he gets us to empathize with these characters. He is able to do this because he identifies with the kids more than the adults as evident from a key line of dialogue that Woolsey says to Gene: “Why, you think grown-ups know what they’re doing? That’s a hustle, kid. Grown-ups are making it up as they go along just like you do.”
Dante expertly shows how kids interact with each other when adults aren’t paying attention, like how they try to impress each other with factoids or the ability to tell a good story or be funny. For example, Stan talks a good game, but gets all tongue-tied when he tries to talk to Sherry. These are smart kids, like how Gene pays close attention to President Kennedy’s speech on T.V. about the aggressive nature of the Russians. Clearly, he’s worried about how this will affect his father who has been deployed near Cuba. Dante is a rare filmmaker that doesn’t talk down to kids, but instead empathizes with them and remembers what it was like to be that young.
Matinee begins with the image of a mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion, which casts a shadow of fear that hangs over the rest of the film. This turns out to be part of a teaser trailer for Woolsey’s Mant! He is first seen in silhouette a la Alfred Hitchcock, but his pitch is pure Castle. Goodman’s Woolsey is an engaging fusion of entrepreneurial filmmakers like Hitchcock, Castle and Corman, harkening back to an era where ‘50s B-movie moguls invented fantastic sounding yet ultimately cheesy innovations like Thrill-o-rama in an effort lure people away from their T.V. sets and back into the movie theaters. Goodman plays him like a slick cinematic huckster who spends a lot of time dreaming up outrageous premises for movies that are just audacious enough to get impressionable kids to eagerly await their arrival at the local movie theater. The veteran actor does a nice job of showing that under Woolsey’s confident façade are very real doubts that his latest movie will be a bust, but it is this fear that motivates him. Goodman uses his big, warm smile to full effect as he tries to get anyone who will listen to go see Mant!
Dante regular Dick Miller and filmmaker John Sayles show up as “concerned citizens” that object to the “cheap, sick” thrills of Woolsey’s movies, which only intensifies the public’s interest in Mant! Miller and Sayles look like they’re having fun playing uptight conservative types who seem to be protesting a little too much. Their “confrontation” with Woolsey is a real treat to watch. Another Dante regular, Robert Picardo, plays the local movie theater’s nervous owner who frets over the installation of Woolsey’s Rumble-rama when he’s not worried about the possible Russian invasion. Cathy Moriarty has a plum role as Woolsey’s world-weary girlfriend and leading lady. Her dry, caustic asides in response to her boyfriend’s relentless campaigning are very amusing.
The origins for Matinee can be traced back as far as 1989 with a screenplay by Jerico Stone (My Stepmother is an Alien) that was more of a fantasy in the vein of Popcorn (1991) with the intention of making a haunted house movie, but Dante wanted to mix cinematic horror with real-life fears. However, no studio was interested in the project and so Joe Dante acquired a development deal with Warner Brothers. He had a couple of different writers work on the script. Ed Naha (Dolls) introduced a character that was a washed-up horror movie star – not a filmmaker – that came to the town to make a personal appearance. When Charles S. Haas (Gremlins 2: The New Batch) came on board, he and Dante decided to set the story during the Cuban Missile Crisis and changed the actor to the Lawrence Woolsey character. They also conducted a lot of research on Florida in the early 1960s in order to authentically recreate 1962.
Dante managed to find independent financing from European investors and arranged for Universal Pictures to distribute Matinee. However, the closer they got to principal photography, it became evident that the financiers didn’t have the money. Dante and producer Mike Finnell approached Universal production chief Tom Pollock, who had already invested a certain amount of money, and asked if the studio could finance the film’s $13 million budget. The executives agreed and treated it as a standard comedy even though Dante saw it more as an indie film.
The production shot on location over 10 weeks in Key West, the Universal Studios lot in Orlando, and Cocoa Beach, which still resembled Key West during the spring of 1992. For Mant!, the movie within the film, Dante wanted to make it as period accurate as possible, telling the effects people, “Don’t do deliberately cheesy effects. Do effects that are pretty much the way they would have been done at the time.” The filmmakers shot it on the cheap over five days.
Matinee received positive reviews from mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “There are a lot big laughs in Matinee, and not many moments when I didn’t have a wide smile on my face.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin praised, Mant!, the movie within a movie: “Collaborating with the screenwriter Charlie Haas, who wrote Mr. Dante’s sly, underappreciated Gremlins 2: The New Batch, he turns Mant into a perfect evocation of this era’s absurdly solemn, pseudo-scientific horror style. It’s a wonderfully nostalgic treat.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B+” rating and Owen Gleiberman called the film, “a witty and affectionate homage to the sci-fi trash of yesteryear,” and felt that Dante “appreciates both the tackiness and the awe.” The Los Angeles Time’s Peter Rainer wrote, “at its best it’s a ticklish nut-brain romp—a crazy quilt of grade-Z horror spoofs.” In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote, “Still, it’s Goodman who makes Matinee run with the alleged reliability of a Maytag. Half huckster, half hero. All heart!!! So gratifying only chuckles can describe him.” Finally, the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “The glory of Dante’s comedy in this movie and others … is that it suggests poetic parallels without insisting on them.”
Dante expertly takes us back to a time when the world was on the brink of nuclear war with fantastic attention to period detail, including retro hairstyles, what people wore and even the way people spoke. Of course, there are spot-on references to movies of the day, like one the kids watch entitled, The Shook Up Shopping Cart, a sly nod to the goofy live-action Disney comedies with a man who is transformed into a shopping cart via a spell and stars an then-unknown Naomi Watts. It’s such a spot-on spoof that you half-expect Dean Jones to make an appearance.
For all of Woolsey’s bluster and the specter of nuclear war that looms large over the proceedings, there is a real humanistic streak that runs through Matinee. Dante clearly has affection for these characters in the way he gives them little moments that flesh these people out so that we care about what happens to them. For example, the heart-to-heart Woolsey has with Gene is one of the best scenes in the film as he explains his love for making monster movies and the appeal of going to the movies. The scene features some of Goodman’s best acting and is a wonderful tribute to the love of cinema. Matinee shows the power of the medium and its ability to transport an audience to other worlds and tell fantastical stories that allow people to forget their everyday lives and fears for a couple of hours.
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Hinman, Catherine. “It’s A Wrap for Matinee.” Sun-Sentinel. June 18, 1992.
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Kenber, Ben. “Joe Dante Takes Us Back to Matinee.” Yahoo! September 13, 2011.